Performers of "Gardenia" | Design by Michael Bonfiglio
Performers of "Gardenia" | Design by Michael Bonfiglio
Row 1: Rudy Suwyns, Vanessa Van Durme, Danilo Povolo
Row 2: Dirk Van Vaerenbergh, Andrea De Laet, Griet Debacker
Row 3: Hendrik Lebon, Richard 'Tootsie' Dierick, Gerrit Becker

MONCLAIR, N.J.: Think of it as a Follies for the third gender. Or La Cage aux Folles as re-dressed by Pina Bausch.

A dance-theater piece from Belgium, Gardenia conjures the closing night of a transvestite cabaret in Barcelonia where seven middle-aged men (between 55 and 65 years old) recall their double lives as cross-dressing movie stars and as ordinary citizens. Since its premiere at the Avignon Festival, the show has been a hit in the European festival circuit (I saw it Sarajevo). It performs through March 25 at the Alexander Kasser Theater as part of Peak Performances on the Montclair State University campus in Montclair, New Jersey.

Gardenia is a hybrid work: part documentary, part visual performance and part extravagant pageant. It was devised by a contemporary dance collective, les ballet C de la B, which is based in Ghent and is considered part of the Belgian new wave.

Performer Vanessa Van Durme in "Gardenia" | Photo by Luk Monsaert
Performer Vanessa Van Durme in "Gardenia" | Photo by Luk Monsaert

It started as a collaboration. The Belgian playwright and director, Vanessa Van Durme, approached choreographer Alain Platlel and theater director Frank van Laecke with the idea of creating a stage counterpart to the film Yo soy asi, a movie about a transvestite cabaret that is forced to close its doors. Van Durme assembled a cast of six older real-life transvestites and transsexuals, most of them in their 70s. The final cast includes a women in her 40s and a younger male dancer.

Premiered in June 2010 in Ghent, Gardenia has been performed in major cities in Europe including at the Sadler’s Wells in London.  It is directed by Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke, who head Les Ballets C de la B in Belgium.

Wrapped with music (everything from Jay Z‘s Forever Young and Claude François‘s Je vais à Rio to Charles Aznavour‘s Comme ils disent and Ravel’s Bolero), Gardenia is a paradoxical looking-glass mirror. It wants us to be voyeurs even as the gender illusionism defiantly plays tricks with our notions of the differences between masculine and feminine. Colorful and grand, the show is based on the real-life experiences of its transsexual and transvestite performances, and yet the show does not depend on spoken text for its meaning. Ven Durme herself states that the piece “has nothing to do with transsexuality but everything to do with charisma.”

The show works its magic through imagery and composition. It opens with the cast in male suits. Van Durme greets the audience to witness Gardenia‘s last show and introduces introduces her colleagues. One of them, a German performer during the war, “resisted everything except the Russian army,” Van Durme says. This is a performance about a performance.

What’s interesting is that Gardenia does not delve into the usual patterns of documentary confession. The performers undress to reveal their real selves underneath the drab suits, but then they mostly freeze in held poses, sometimes lipsynching. We are treated to a succession of scenes and tableaux. All of which culminate in a Bolero sequence, during which the performers gradually put on more make up and clothes and become real drag queens. The final number blasts the song “Over the Rainbow” with everyone on stage and the clock ticking.

Intriguingly, the younger male dancer is the only one allowed to verbally speak. He stands center stage and tries to grab our attention. Except that Van Durme (in drag) steals the show through sheer extravagant presence. In an interview Platel and Van Laecke felt they needed this younger man to make Gardenia “more layered” and diverse. It is perhaps the one dramaturgical misstep in an otherwise lovely spectacle.

Gardenia is a delicious cocktail that mixes poignant glamour, documentary facets, the yearning for transcendence and a social-justice message. — RG

Performer Richard 'Tootsie' Dierick in "Gardenia" | Photo by Luk Monsaert
Performer Richard 'Tootsie' Dierick in "Gardenia" | Photo by Luk Monsaert

To learn more about les Ballets C de la B, please visit: http://www.lesballetscdela.be/.

TICKET, TRANSPORTATION AND DINING INFORMATION    

Performance times: March 23 at 7:30 p.m.; March 24 at 8pm; March 25 at 3pm; 23 at 7:30pm

All tickets are $15 and are available at the Alexander Kasser Theater Box Office, by calling 973-655-5112 or online at http://www.peakperfs.org.

Charter bus service is provided from New York City’s Port Authority Bus Terminal – arcade on 41st Street between 8th and 9th Avenues – to the Alexander Kasser Theater ($10 per person, roundtrip) for all Saturday and Sunday performances. Bus reservations may be made by calling 973-655-5112 or by visiting http://www.peakperfs.org. For train service, available only on weekdays, go online to www.njtransit.com or call 973-275-5555.

For restaurants close to the Alexander Kasser Theater, visit http://www.destinationmontclair.com

Montclair State University is located at 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey 07043.

3 thoughts on “Transvestite cabaret blossoms in “Gardenia,” a dance-theater work from Belgium

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